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Monday, March 9, 2020

Corona Virus And Martial Law – Can It Happen Here?

The Corona virus may or not be as serious or deadly as the Great Influenza of 1917 which killed millions, nor as bad as the 1957 and 1968 pandemics.  It is the fear of the disease which is causing a run on pharmacies and supermarkets, and causing equity markets to crash.  If the estimated death rate continues at approximately two percent nationally; and if the disease continues to kill mainly the elderly and those people with compromised immune systems, the general population, if infected, will get sick but recover; and most who contract the disease will be asymptomatic.

Two percent – the overall estimated fatality rate from the Corona virus – is nothing given life’s other perils. Is this worth bringing world economies to a halt, devaluing stock markets, and sending normal citizens into a tizzy?

In the days before religious and secular fundamentalism, more temperate, saner, and more profoundly spiritual sentiments ruled.  While we were responsible for our own limited personal destinies, our fate was in God’s hands.  The world is as He created it, as he desired it, and everything is within his purview.  Early American Protestantism expressed this theology best.  Divine election was a cause for celebration, not concern.  Individual enterprise did not go unnoticed; and while subjection to God’s will was foremost, He did not overlook Man’s will.  It was As The World Turns with a theological premise.

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In the early days of the new Republic, morbidity and mortality rates were high and life expectancy low.  One expected to die at an early age from childbirth, infection, war, or accident.  Life under such conditions was valued differently than today when longevity has encouraged timidity, anxiety, and fear.

Tolstoy in War and Peace described the Battle of Borodino in detail, especially the fearlessness of Russian soldiers in the midst of Napoleon’s onslaught.  There was a happy camaraderie among the men, Tolstoy wrote, a patriotism, a disregard for death, and a disregard for death.  What Tolstoy did not mention was that in an age where life expectancy was barely thirty-give,  a heroic death on the battlefield was indeed preferable from dying of sepsis from the puncture of a field thorn.

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Nevertheless, and despite history, religion, and philosophy, Americans are indeed in a tizzy and governments are taking extreme measures – perhaps too extreme - to control the spread of Corona; but this reaction cannot help but stokes the fear and anxiety even more.  This fear, scared retreat, and panic are more worrisome than the disease itself.  Where is the ‘face it, get it, get over it, and get on with it’ of saner times?

As panic begins to set in, and as the economy begins to come apart, the government will finally have to take strong, decisive and authoritarian measures never seen before in peacetime.  In order to control the spread of the virus, government will at the least take over or nationalize the airline, ground transport, and health industries; will set up and enforce quarantines and road blocks; will organize and enforce food and pharmaceutical control; will dictate work patterns and enforce office closures, etc.  Much of this, while hard for Americans to consider, is exactly what China has done successfully.

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However temporary, nationalization of the private sector and authoritarian rule over the financial markets and the movement of people, goods, and services is just the beginning of a radical, possibly revolutionary change in the way America operates.  The Corona virus may force a reconsideration of capitalism itself.  How, one might argue, in the face of pandemics and other international crises, can a fragmented, highly independent, uncoordinated socio-economic society ever be able to mobilize itself?

With the extensive globalization of markets, if India stops making essential drugs; if governments totally collapse in East Africa and the supply of rare earths, necessary for computers and smart phones disappears overnight; if the fall of oil prices forces Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to stop oil production; if Mexico, Argentina stop producing fruits and vegetables; and if the supply chain in Asia for industrial and commercial goods is severely disrupted, where will we be? The call for a withdrawal from international markets in a new isolationist economic xenophobia is entirely possible.  The United States as an authoritarian, insular, society of closed borders and limited trade is not unthinkable.  Such an America-first policy will upset the entire geopolitical system.

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The Trump Administration has taken far more criticism than it should have for ‘ignoring’ medical advice.  While scientific information about the generation of the disease, how it spreads, mutates, and develops is critically important to provide the basis for appropriate government and private responses, it is a coordinated, disciplined managerial and institutional approach to the spread of the virus which is paramount and which may avoid many of the draconian measures mentioned above.

A White House crisis team must include public health professionals and medical scientists, but  even more importantly should include experts in logistics, law, infrastructure, law enforcement, and governmental operations.

Not only because of concerns about contracting the disease, but because of the threat of self-quarantine, shelves are being emptied of food and water.  Who wants to be stuck home alone with nothing to eat?

Even in communities which have not yet seen a case of Corona, retail and wholesale stock outages of popular items are widespread, and consumers are beginning to hoard.  Shoppers with large purchases of essential items are being intimidated by others who have been unable to purchase them.  If things get worse, looting is a possibility. 

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Uncertainty breeds fear; fear encourages government action; and government action turns inevitably authoritarian.  Our age is far removed from the days of the early Republic when religious principles espoused by all and enshrined by its founders were unchallenged.  Despite our religiosity there is little belief that God’s will means much; and too much belief that the power of human enterprise and will will save all; and we have no philosophical  foundation on which to base our judgments.  We are desperate for facts and figures, and when they are not available, and we have no recourse to much more substantial, profound, convictions, we panic.

So whereas the the Hong Kong flu, SARS, MERS, and Avian influenza came and went without major impact and disruption, the Corona virus has shown to be a seriously destabilizing event, one which has structural implications.  It may not be too late for a measured, judicious, and coherent government response and a patient, rational and philosophical attitude on the part of the public.  Summer may mitigate the spread of the disease, and by Fall it may be a past, forgotten event.  However, this is unlikely, and the worst may be yet to come.

Government involvement in all aspects of American life, as unfamiliar and unwanted as it may be to many, is likely to become a reality; and while it may indeed help to stem if not stop the spread of the virus, the consequences of such interventionism will be far reaching. This is the opportunity many on the Left have waited for - a strong, compelling argument for an interventionist government, one which rightfully mistrustful of the private sector, co-opts more and more of its enterprises.  Health care, transport, agriculture, industry, and commerce may well be taken over by government.

Once this happens, it will be very hard to retreat, and an era of supersized, intrusive, authoritarian government is sure to last for decades if not generations.  The fragility of national and especially international markets and the flow of goods and services will generate political demand for a continued, long-term policy of militant self-protection and national austerity.

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